2012, Reportage, Taxila, Telegraph Calcutta

Nitish goes in search of Chanakya

Sankarshan Thakur, The Telegraph

Taxila (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Nov. 15: There was a day thousands of years ago that a mastermind called Kautilya decided to leave the faculty of Taxila University, the most hallowed portal of learning of its time.

He descended these hills and travelled far down the plains to arrive in Patliputra and become Chanakya, the philosopher who inspired Chandragupt to emperorship and empire.

Yesterday, that journey was traced all the way from the reverse end. Patliputra’s current king, Nitish Kumar, arrived at Taxila, but there was neither sign nor signature of Chanakya to be found.

As a regent of the great Magadhan kingdom, Chanakya was the central toll of his times. It’s not a name that rings a bell any more. Its echoes have so expired you have to shout the name aloud and invent a resonance of your own. “Channakiya?” asked Naseem the guide as he led us up hillside steps to partial remains of the campus at Jaulian, “Kabhi suna nahin, yahan to sirf ryoons hain (Chanakya? Never heard of him, all we have here are ruins).”

But Nitish had driven here possessed of unshakeable passion. “You can feel it, you can almost believe he walked where we are walking,” he said, “Just imagine what a grand place this would have been in its time, even the partial ruins are so formidable and awe-inspiring.”

He was standing in a large sunken square which may once have been the monastery’s bathing pool. Arranged all around it were little spaces separated with stone walls, probably the living and meditation quarters of the student-monks of Taxila.

Abutting the plot were two low-ceilinged halls containing squat mud platforms with etchings from the life of Buddha and broken bits of verses in Prakrit. Probably prayer rooms, probably lecture halls. Probably Chanakya stood here one day, preaching his wisdom. Probably he lived and meditated in one of the holes in the wall around the dead pool. Probably these walls were touched by him, probably you could still sense his presence, if you tried hard enough.

It was possible to see what there is to see at the Jaulian ruins, laid out on the terrace of a hill above the town of Taxila, in half an hour, no more. Nitish lingered on a little more than an hour, examining the skeletons of what used to be, speculating on the purpose of small alcoves built into the walls of each roofless dwelling, gently caressing the stonework, drifting from room to similar room, hovering, imagining, as if trying to recreating something in his mind’s eye.

“Kya cheez rahi hogi (what a place it must have been),” he remarked when he afforded himself a bird’s eye view of the site, having climbed a tumbledown stairway to a higher perch.

There was still nothing to suggest Chanakya, though. He had a padlocked wooden case on one wall opened. It revealed eroded mud figurines around what may have been a relief rendering of Buddha. There was no head to it, nor feet, only a torso. “These are in mud and they got destroyed in the rain,” Naseem offered, “That is why we decided to have them closed in wooden panels. Very few of them survive, in fact we pulled most of them out of here and took them to the museum, they are best kept there.”

There were whispers among accompanying delegates that the Nalanda ruins were better maintained. “They are not interested but these ruins are too large from them to ignore or put away. But notice how so few of the figures still have heads, they have all been smashed,” one of them complained.

Nitish, though, seemed to be surfing another planet, calmly ingesting what remained for memory to bank rather than carp. “Remarkable, remarkable,” he muttered every once in a while. Presently, the party came to a plaque in the old wall that announced the “Healing Buddha” — insert your finger into the recessed belly-button of the idol and make a wish, the legend said, and perhaps you will have fulfilment. “Ah,” remarked Nitish, “sach-much” (really)?” “That’s what they say,” Naseem told him, “That is what Buddhists believe.”

Nitish was game and something about his firm approach to the “Healing Buddha” told you he already knew what wish he had to make. In went his finger, pop went the cameras. When he was done a few moments later, he was smiling. It’s moot what he wished for, it’s speculation why he smiled. Perhaps, that moment’s embrace with the “Healing Buddha” finally brought to him a tactile intimation of Chanakya. Naseem wouldn’t know, neither would we.

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